Alumna Victoria Nuon's education has been transformative for her and her family.
A little more than half of the students at UW Tacoma are the first in their families to attend college. Being the first to do anything can be challenging, even scary. First generation college students know these feelings, but there’s something else they often experience. Many of these students carry a weight with them to campus and it’s not from what’s in their backpacks.
Victoria Nuon is a first-generation college student. “Being the oldest daughter, I kept hearing from my parents that my sisters were looking up to me — and it wasn’t just my sisters; my aunts, uncles and my cousins were all looking up to me,” said Nuon. “There was so much pressure on me and I knew I couldn’t give up. I had to be the change they were all hoping for.”
Nuon’s family fled Cambodia in the aftermath of that country’s bloody civil war. The war lasted from 1968 to 1975 and led to the Cambodian Genocide which resulted in the deaths of at least one-and-a-half million people. “My great grandpa was killed by the Khmer Rouge,” said Nuon. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
Nuon’s maternal great-grandmother had seven children. Her oldest (Nuon’s grandmother) played a role in helping the family relocate to the United States. “My great-grandma and my grandma leaned on each other and made the decision to leave together.”
Six of the seven children left Cambodia. One of the siblings stayed behind because they had a child with a medical condition and could not travel. Those that left went first to Thailand and then to the Philippines. “They then went to Tennessee after a family from there sponsored them,” said Nuon. From there, the family went in different directions. One group stayed in Tennessee while the other traveled to North Carolina before reuniting in Tacoma. One sibling (a brother) opted to remain in North Carolina.
Nuon’s father and his family came to the United States in 1986 from Cambodia. “My dad is the second youngest of nine siblings,” she said. “They all lived together in Section 8 housing in Tacoma Salishan neighborhood.” The Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, is the federal government’s program to help those with very low-income, the disabled and the elderly afford housing.
Those early years in Tacoma were difficult. “No one had a college education and so the only work available to them involved a lot of manual labor,” said Nuon. Still, both sides of Nuon’s family started to lay down roots.
The Person People Can Count On
If we advance the timeline a little we arrive in the 1990’s. Nuon’s parents are at this point teenagers. The pair started dating while students at Tacoma's Lincoln High School and have been together ever since. “My mom actually got pregnant with me in high school,” said Nuon. “I know it was hard for them but that didn’t prevent them from getting scholarships to attend Washington State University.”
Nuon’s parents didn’t complete their degrees. “She felt lost and didn’t have support in Pullman,” said Nuon. “My dad has told me he left because his grades were slipping, that he was on the verge of losing his scholarship and he didn’t feel prepared enough for higher education.”
Nuon’s father took a job at the Emerald Queen Casino where he’s currently a cage manager. Her mother became a licensed pharmacy technician and now works for Providence Home Infusion in Tukwila. “They really focused on trying to eliminate any potential obstacle to my education,” said Nuon. “Growing up, college felt like an intrinsic right, and I realize now my parents created that reality for me.”
Nuon herself attended Lincoln High School. After graduation she enrolled at Pierce College. She started at UW Tacoma in the fall of 2020 to pursue a degree in biomedical sciences. “My mom wanted me to do something in medicine,” she said. “I looked at the biomedical program and thought it could prepare me for my eventual goal, which is to get a pharmacy degree.”
Nuon combined her coursework with a job as an assistant in Tacoma General Hospital’s outpatient pharmacy. There’s a personal side to Nuon’s decision to be a pharmacist. “My grandma is diabetic and I saw how hard it could be at times to get hold of a doctor versus how easy it was to get hold of a pharmacist if we had questions or concerns,” said Nuon. “I want to be there for my family and for my community in that way, I want to be the person people can count on.”
This is Nuon’s gap year. She graduated from UW Tacoma in the spring of 2022. Nuon may not currently be a student, but she’s still on campus. “I’m a tutor in the Teaching & Learning Center,” she said. “There were times when I struggled as an undergraduate and had to learn to ask for help. I want to help students preserve through college.”
Nuon begins work on a pharmacy degree this fall. That weight she’s carrying is still there, but it doesn’t feel as heavy anymore. “I used to think I had to be the hero for my family,” she said. “I used to be afraid I wasn’t enough and because of this my family wouldn’t prosper. Now I see my family is doing great. We each have our own strengths and, more importantly, we have each other.”
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